By Greg Avery – Senior Reporter, Denver Business Journal
A Houston energy company is beginning to hire staff for a lab it opened this month in Denver to refine its technology turning steel mill air emissions and other industrial waste gases into a source of hydrogen fuel.
Utility Global, a five-year-old business, this month moved into a former pharmaceutical laboratory space in the south metro area and plans to develop key parts of its technology meant to decarbonize heavy industries.
The company has proven its hydrogen fuel conversion system works, but the lab it opened in Douglas County is key to making Utility Global’s core technology into a real commercial product, said CEO Claus Nussgruber.
“It’s about great ideas by bright people, but it’s also about having the people turn things into practical reality,” Nussgruber said.
The company leased a 20,000-square-foot space at 373 Inverness Parkway and formally opened its lab there on May 10.
It aims to have a staff of 25 newly hired people working there by the end of the year.
Utility Global designed an electrolysis cell that can take a stream of mixed gases and, without using electricity, run it through a conversion cycle with pure water and get purified hydrogen, the company says.
Hydrogen is seen as an attractive alternative fuel for hard-to-decarbonize industries — but where to efficiently get the hydrogen or how to power conversion processes stripping hydrogen out of water complicates its use.
Being able to create hydrogen from a variety of mixed gases without needing to use a large amount of electrical power to do it holds the promise of turning industrial carbon dioxide emissions into a source of clean-burning fuel, Nussgruber said.
First, the company aims to eliminate 70% of carbon dioxide emissions from the furnace of a traditional steel mill. The hydrogen yield, as much as 250 tons of hydrogen per day, can be returned to the steel mill furnace, burned as low-emissions fuel, or captured for some other use.
The conversion process can be used on a variety of other waste gas streams, meaning Utility Global’s technology can be used to significantly decarbonize not just steel mills, but chemical refineries, renewable fuel plants and other industrial processes.
Utility Global’s technology could help decarbonize trillions of dollars worth of already-existing industrial infrastructure, Nussgruber said.
The company has reported success with a pilot system built to prove its technology works, he said. Now, Utility Global is building its first commercial conversion system this year at a plant owned by Canadian steel maker Stelco.
That means optimizing the performance of the electrochemical process at the heart of Utility Global’s technology and designing components used in commercial-scale applications.
The company found the energy workforce in the Denver metro area to have deep expertise in that kind of electrochemistry. It’s thanks to work done around ceramics and solid oxide substances at the Colorado School of Mines and its Colorado Fuel Cell Center, CoorsTek, and the National Renewable Energy Lab, Nussgruber said.
While the company’s home base of Houston has been invaluable as a place to start the business, the expertise in Colorado made it the logical location for Utility Global’s lab, Nussgruber said.
“The place to be for solid oxides is Denver,” he said. “What Houston could not provide us was the electrochemical piece.”
The company employs about 40 today and is growing. It aims to have a scalable commercial version of its system available in 2025.